George H. Austin (1936)
George H. Austin was born in Alva, Florida on December 6, 1936 to Horace and Lillian Austin in a small frame building that is now used as an office. He was the oldest of three, with two younger sisters, Mary Ellen and Donna. His father was the manager of the Owanita Citrus Growers Association in Alva, and Austin grew up working either in the packinghouse or the groves after school and on Saturdays. His first job was assembling Bruce boxes and pasting the labels on the ends. He graduated from high school Alva Grammar School and High School in 1954, going from a class of eleven to a freshman class of almost three thousand at the University of Florida. Five years later he graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in building construction and immediately went to work for CECO Steel Products Corporation as a sales engineer in Atlanta. Also in 1959, he married Elizabeth Alderman and together they had 2 children, Leslie and Amy. He worked for CECO over a seven year period, transferring eventually to Birmingham and then to Miami. During that time, he also served in the Army Reserve and was honorably discharged at the rank of 1st Lieutenant after eight years.
In 1966, his father passed away and Austin came back home to work in the family business. He quickly got reacquainted with the industry and continued his father’s business of harvesting, hauling, buying and selling fruit. A hard worker, Austin treated the small growers of Southwest Florida with honesty and integrity. His efforts on their behalf and his high ethical standards in maintaining his business relationships kept many of these growers in business through the tough economic times that repeatedly occurred during his career. He was able to slowly grow his business, eventually going from buying and selling approximately one hundred thousand boxes in 1966 to almost two million boxes in 1995.
In 1986, Austin worked with other members of the Southwest Florida citrus industry in forming the Gulf Citrus Growers Association to represent the citrus growers in the region and served as its President for three terms – the only member to do so. He was the first membership chair and his tireless efforts in bringing in new members were instrumental in assuring the successful establishment of the organization as an ongoing enterprise. During that time, he attended and participated in numerous meetings and industry events and would represent Gulf citrus growers with dignity and credibility. In addition, Austin served as chairman of nearly all of Gulf CGA’s operating committees. Over 20 years later, Austin would still be actively involved as the chairman of the Long Range Planning Committee, focusing on sustaining the organization amidst a shrinking industry and financial restrictions due to less acreage.
Throughout his career, Austin remained on the cutting edge of the industry and continually adapted to the many changes that growers have faced. During the massive grove expansions in the Gulf area after the major freezes of the ‘80s, Austin’s advice and expertise were instrumental in assisting many large landowners to make a smooth transition into the industry.
In 1993, he was appointed to the Florida Citrus Commission by Governor Lawton Chiles and served two terms there, chairing the Food Service Committee. He made numerous market tours during that time, including two to Europe. When the industry was faced with the possibility of losing the tariff on imported orange juice, Austin was called upon to chair the Tariff Oversight Committee and led the effort to protect the tariff. Due to his successful efforts, that tariff is still in place today.
In addition to his work within the citrus industry, Austin served on the Horizon Council, an economic advisory board to the Lee County Board of County Commissioners in regard to business development issues in Lee County. This council is a public-private partnership that brings together sixty-two members from an array of government, education, business and community organizations. In addition to serving as the advocate for agriculture on the council, Austin worked to improve the overall business environment in Lee County, to attract new businesses to the area and to retain and expand existing businesses. He also was elected to serve on the Lee Memorial Hospital Board, as well as serving on the Children's Hospital Board, and is the longtime chairman of the Board of Trustees for the First United Methodist Church in Fort Myers, where he has been a member for fifty years.
Austin was always available to the media and civic organizations to provide a grower perspective on industry issues, eventually becoming known as the “voice” of agriculture in the region. This was especially significant as the Gulf area grew in importance as a major citrus producing area of the state. From representing the industry on various boards, to participating in editorial board meetings and interviews with the media, Austin provided a personable and credible voice for the citrus industry.
In 1995, Austin sold his business to Oakley Groves, knowing that they had the “financial capability and the reputation that would provide the continuity” he wanted for his employees and customers. His loyalty is shown by his concern for the well-being of his employees and customers and is just one of the reasons he is so well-liked and respected in the industry. Austin stayed on with Oakley in a management position for ten more years, until his retirement in 2005.
Austin retained a small grove in Alva directly behind the house in which he was born and continues to be involved and up-to-date with the market information. He could always be counted on to make a responsible, informed and well-thought decision or comment when consulted on industry matters. Austin’s reputation for unselfish, dedicated and trustworthy service and his unwavering support of the small growers helped make him a true leader in the citrus industry.
During the massive grove expansions in the Gulf area after the major freezes of the ‘80s, Austin’s advice and expertise were instrumental in assisting many large landowners to make a smooth transition into the industry. In 1993, he was appointed to the Florida Citrus Commission by Governor Lawton Chiles and served two terms there, chairing the Food Service Committee. When the industry was faced with the possibility of losing the tariff on imported orange juice, Austin was called upon to chair the Tariff Oversight Committee and led the effort to protect the tariff. Due to his successful efforts, that tariff is still in place today.
Gulf Citrus Growers Association
Florida Citrus Commission
Tariff Oversight Committee